Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Italian seismologists to be tried for manslaughter (nature.com)
140 points by andrewcooke on May 25, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

As a former science major, this kind of stuff is scary...

1) Scientists, with a crapton of data, interpret results to the best of their ability.

2) Scientists report results, with caveats, to Country.

3) Country reported results to Public, (possibly without caveats) in an effort to "look good".

4) Public ignored caveats (if given), took Scientists words as absolute proof.

5) Public ignored Common Sense during what must have been a major seismic event, and instead of blaming themselves, blame the Scientists.

Oh, what a demon Science hath wrought.

Assuming the court has any sense they will agree with: Low probability of X doesn't mean X isn't going to happen.

I've seen so little evidence of common sense anywhere in the last 10 years that I wouldn't hold my breath. My guess (based on zero evidence and being fairly cynical) is that they will be found guilty.

You better be right about this common sense deficit or I will have to drag you into court.

Drag him anyway, he'll probably settle. It's what all the latest patent companies are doing. I see no reason why it can't work on a smaller scale.

And if he doesn't settle, I can always sue you for saying so. :-)

That's phenomenally stupid. Rather than getting best estimates, they are explicitly requesting that scientists over-estimate the probability of disaster and cry wolf. That in turn will mean they will have even less warning should something genuine turn up.

Ever hear of "defensive medicine" where doctors will prescribe extra courses of care and tests, just to validate what they already know to be true in order to avoid possible litigation in the rare case that they might be wrong?

Asking for certainty in areas where it can't be mathematically guaranteed is extremely expensive.

"just to validate what they already know to be true"

Not to forget, making money from it, or, at least, bringing money to the associated laboratories or doctors.

A real pain. And the phenomenon has spread far and wide. Even though not everyone has such litigious systems the costs relating to defensive medicine are spreading.

As someone working in the field of earthquake engineering this is very scary for me. Earthquakes are caused due to buildup of stress between two giant pieces of rocks trying to slide past each other. A swarm of small earthquakes can sometime release the stress thus lowering the probability of a big earthquake, so the scientists were not entirely wrong in their statements.

Also earthquake predictions are discouraged since false positives can have huge adverse economic impact (people and businesses fleeing the region) the best way to prepare for an earthquake for a community is to build good safe earthquake resistant houses rather than blaming scientists for not predicting some inherently random phenomenon.

Taking your argument one step further ... At what point are the number of earthquake deaths more economically costly than repeated unnecessary evacuations? Perhaps 300 deaths is worth keeping hundreds of thousands at their workplaces over an extended period of time.

Consider that millions of Americans use public roadways every year at the cost of 30K fatalities.

I wonder if the politicians made the correct economic decision but the wrong ethical decision?

Aside from the question of whether or not these seismologists gave truly criminally bad advice in this case, it's a good bet that after this prosecution Italy is going to have a very hard time getting anyone with a clue about seismology to go on record with their objective scientific opinion.

I am Italian (although I don't live in Italy). Those seismologists are being accused to have made statements and claims of "no worry" without bearing sufficient scientific support. The trial will likely end in a mediatic bubble (hopefully).

It may also help you knowing that the main man behind this accusations is Guido Bertolaso. He is very close to Berlusconi's government and got his own, more serious, legal troubles having to do with bribes after constructions in disastered area and prostitution. As usual, things in Italy are more complicated than what it may look.

Edit: adding this link http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article70...

It may be helpful to remember that they were not 'scientists' at a meeting. They were members of a committee (Grandi Rischi), part of a government agency (Protezione Civile). They are accused because of their public 'role'. The title is somewhat misleading, it should be: "Italian Major Risks Committee to be tried etc.", if you search in italian press the trial is called "Processo grandi rischi", "Major Risks trial".

(My opinion is that the congress was just a 'public relations' thing to 'reassure' people. The words "the scientific community tells me there is no danger", served, very likely, as an excuse for the 'politicians' to do nothing in order to prevent risks [because of the typical italian cynicism, I can't assure they were not aware of the misuse of their words.]

Please note that after the earthquake the public debate was focused on the stupid problem of 'prediction of earthquakes'. Yes we can't predict earthquakes, but we can predict the effect and take measures in order to prevent risks. And it is clear that nothing was done.)

[Excuse me for my bad english.]

yeah, someone at work just reminded me that the context was that someone was going round warning about a major earthquake (based on argon release? which i think hasn't been found a reliable predictor) and this was all in response to that.

while the scientists were probably correct that the earthquake warnings were not justified, it turns out that the prediction was vaguely correct (iirc the time was off by long enough that evacuations would have been impractical).

[edit: radon, not argon - http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/07/local/me-quake-predi... - and he didn't have the correct location or time, but was close]

Next week's news: Italy suffers severe shortage of qualified seismologists. Government officials are baffled.

On the upside, government officials don't have to explain why a small city that's plagued by earthquakes had such poor building practices that a 6.3 earthquake killed 0.4% of the population.

I've been to L'Aquila twice before the quake. Many buildings consisted (at least in part) of old structures. The city was founded in 1258.

> The city was founded in 1258.

For an Italian city, that's fairly recent, actually!

You mean those building code things weren't just a way to make a quick buck by selling exemptions for every building?

This isn't the first time Italy has reduced itself to the status of reactionary backwater by attacking scientists, Galileo being a case in point.

In the wake of that travesty, Louis XIV didn't have a hard time convincing Cassini to abandon his post in Bologna and emigrate to France, where he could continue his work safely. Given the extraordinary military advantage conveyed by Cassini's work in improving cartography through increasingly sophisticated astronomical observation, the Netherlands and England were quick to join the seventeenth-century's war for technical talent.

Not grasping the extent to which the world was passing it by, the Papacy kept Galileo's works on the list of banned books until the mid-nineteenth century. By the time they came off, Italy's once formidable lead had been squandered permanently.

File this current fiasco under 'lessons not learned'.

> This isn't the first time Italy has reduced itself to the status of reactionary backwater by attacking scientists, Galileo being a case in point.

There was no "Italy" at that point. Galileo spent "the happiest years of his life" here in Padova, where he was given pretty much free reign by the Republic of Venice to do what he wanted because they were not nearly so much under the influence of the church, which was, and and still is a problematic influence on Italian society.

This is another "wtf" science story in Italy that's still quite current:


Also, as an aside, if anyone happens through the area this summer, as always, I'm happy to go out for a drink/pizza/whatever with fellow hackers, and, time permitting, show you around Padova a bit.

Hey David, if you'll ever manage to organize an HN spritz in Padova let me know, I'd be happy to join :)

I'll be at this on Friday: http://www.programmersinpadua.it/

Excellent points - especially the one about the fierce independence of the Venetians. The history of that city-state is truly magnificent.

During large portions of its history, "city state" would probably not be completely accurate, as it was a country that had both large amounts of land in north eastern Italy, as well as numerous bits and pieces of land (Crete and Cyprus, for instance) scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

They had us for ~400 years. It was called the 'Cretan Renaissance'. Their mark is still pretty obvious here. Kind of wish they'd stayed longer

Wonderful how if something is long ago enough, expansionist powerplay and useless collateral damage becomes "truly magnificient".

Pope Urban VIII's beef with Cassini wasn't over his assertion that Copernicus was right, but rather because Cassini was asserting that which he could not prove. He was basically saying that he was right and everyone else was wrong and they should just believe him because he was right.

The pope said (rightly so) that unless Cassini could offer proof as to the cause of planets allegedly circling the sun, he should present both the Copernicus and Ptolemy model and leave it up to the reader to make up his mind. (He couldn't prove it because the theory of gravitation was not known at the time)

Instead, Galileo tricked a priest into printing his book without a papal seal of approval, after he had promised the pope that he would present the Copernicus model as a hypothesis and not as proven fact.

So, in this case, the church was on the side of the scientific method. You don't just assert something extraordinary without some extraordinary evidence to back it up.

Pope Urban VIII's beef with Cassini wasn't over his assertion that Copernicus was right, but rather because Cassini was asserting that which he could not prove.


So, in this case, the church was on the side of the scientific method.

I find it hard to believe that the Catholic Church then was a proponent of scientific method and would have accepted Galileo's theories if only he'd had evidence.

Even now the Catholic Church (and other religions) do not follow empirical experimentalism. They ignore what the scientific method tells them if it disagrees with their beliefs and dogma. Creationism is a common example amount protestant churches, but the Catholic Church still maintains that a healthy sexuality is unhealthy, that homosexual sexual activity is unhealthy, and that condoms don't work in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

To a scientists, "proof" means 'an experiment that I can repeat that confirms this data', to the catholic church (and many other religions), "proof" can include things you read in your holy book. How could Galileo "proof" his theories to their satisfaction?

The church changes character along with those in power, so comparing the church of then to the church of now is not very meaningful, nor is talking about contemporary church views in contrast to past views.

Pope Urban VIII had at one point actually encouraged Galileo's teachings, but Galileo himself was known to be arrogant and headstrong, having little patience for bureaucracy, and virtually no tact when dealing with others, especially if they disagreed with him.

There are a number of ways Galileo could have approached things:

1. Present both the Ptolemy and Copernicus models, along with the arguments for each.

2. Delay publication until he could build a fully working model, rather than a series of observations and assertions.

3. Defy authority, fraudulently publish, and damn the ignorant fools in power.

Option 1 would have been the best approach, as it would be the least jarring to established knowledge and would provide a wedge for new ideas.

Option 2 would likely stir up controversy at a later date, but would not involve insubordination.

Option 3 was pretty much guaranteed to blow up, much like an employee directly disobeying his boss to his face. Even if he and the pope had been the bestest of buds, there would have been no way politically for the pope to ignore his behavior. (As it was, the pope flew into a rage when he found out that Galileo had published behind his back)

Whereas after Pope Urban VIII the Catholic Church has been willing to change it's dogma based on experiemental evidence? That only happens after most of the world agrees with the experimental results (e.g. heliocentricism).

Presenting both theories just sounds like modern creationist "Teach both theories", i.e. a load of rubbish.

Actually, that analogy is very apt.

The existing authority will not accept new theories replacing the old until VERY compelling evidence has been brought forth (this happens even today in the secular world, and that's a GOOD thing).

Creationism will have a very hard time displacing the existing accepted scientific body of theory and evidence, as has been seen by their constant failures in the past. But sneaking it in under the radar by "presenting both theories" has gained them more traction than any other strategy they've attempted so far.

What the pope was telling Galileo to do was, in effect, the same thing. Sneak the idea in on the coattails of established "truth", and then it'll be a lot easier to embellish it to fullness later.

So I retract my previous statement that the church was on the side of scientific inquiry. In fact, both cases involve intellectual fraud, in that an idea is not allowed to stand on its own merits, but rather requires political machinations in order to be injected into society at large (but then again, when was that ever not the case?). The only difference is that Galileo's teachings were actually true, and creationism is actually false, but we only have that knowledge with the benefit of hindsight.

I think you mean "Pope Urban VIII's beef with Galileo...", not Cassini.

For what it's worth, Galileo made two critical observations with his telescope - specifically, his discoveries of the Jovian moons and the phases of Venus. The former demonstrated that the universe contained more than one center of gravity. This served as a fundamental contradiction of the Aristotelian metaphysics that anchored the Ptolemaic scheme, and which the Church had, by then, adopted as canonical. The latter phenomena made no sense in the context of a terracentric cosmos, but was perfectly consistent with a heliocentric model.

In other words, Galileo was not "saying that he was right and everyone else was wrong and they should just believe him because he was right." Rather, he was offering observational proof of the Copernican theory. His own theories about gravity, and specifically, WHY there could be multiple centers were - at this stage - irrelevant. The mere fact of these other centers' existence was enough to upset the intellectual status quo.

Indeed, the real bone of contention had nothing to do with the Church insisting on evidence in support of theory. The evidence was right in front of them. The problem was the inconsistency formed between the the revelation that Earth is a orbiting planet, and the (repeated) Biblical assertions that it wasn't. For instance, “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable.” (1 Chronicles 16:30), “Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm ...” (Psalm 93:1), “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable ...” (Psalm 96:10), “...who made the earth and fashioned it, and himself fixed it fast...” (Isaiah 45:18), etc. The obvious solution - a concession that the Bible made heavy use of metaphor, and should not be taken literally - presented intractable political problems for an institution that had amassed formidable power around interpretations that treated large amounts of the Bible as actual history.

Really, the notion that "the church was on the side of the scientific method" could not be further from the truth - not least of all because the scientific method depends on the freedom of consciousness, and the ability to change one's mind based on observable reality - regardless of contrary views based on scripture, fiat, or tradition. This degree of liberty was - quite literally - anathema to an institution that claimed something approaching a property right in the laity's souls. To say they were supporting it is flatly absurd.

You're telling this as if the rules for knowledge and deduction had already been worked out -- you're telling it in a way where we are invited to take our current understanding of how science works and drop it willy-nilly into a time many hundreds of years ago. It doesn't work like that. To them, holy writ was another form of valid observational data. The struggle religion is having is an internal one -- how literally to take the holy words. Offenses to science are just collateral damage in that larger debate. There was also a personal thing going on between Galileo and the Pope.

I don't say that as an apologist. I really feel like there is nothing to defend here. Mankind's belief system impeded and advanced the acquisition of scientific knowledge in various ways. For instance, I'd argue that the reformation was the biggest thing to happen to science, encouraging individuals to see and prove things for themselves.

I was just taking issue with not having enough context. Yes, the big picture is Galileo had a hard time of it. But all the little details -- the personality issues, the issues of evidence, the way his work was constructed, the way knowledge was generally gathered and advancements made at the time, etc. -- to me those are the juiciest parts of the story. Gives it a wonderful 3-D feel. To tell it like a comic book from the 21st century where the church is evil and Galileo was some kind of uber-hero is to commit a crime against the joy of history, in my opinion. It's a much more enjoyable story than that, and I'm not sure the listener of the comic book version really understands what was going on from this version of the telling. To be more blunt, and speaking as an agnostic and non-religious person, it sounds a bit more like anti-church propaganda instead of an honest look at how people lived. Listening to the apologist doesn't put me on the church's side by any means, but it sure makes the whole thing into a hell of a better story.

@Daniel - I hope you weren't expecting Galileo's full biography, a comprehensive survey of 16th century intellectual life, along with a dissection of approaches to the accumulation of knowledge that had developed over the previous, say, 2,000 years - all packed into a single HN comment. Context - remember?

There is no side of the scientific method which involves using the coercive power of the state to put someone under house arrest and to muzzle their public statements merely for their ideas.

Not in the "pure" scientific method, but in practice, no such thing exists. There is always politics to consider, and Galileo considered wrong.

One might be inclined to believe that Louis XIV was acting as a benefactor when he invited Cassini to France, but in reality he was using it as yet another wedge against the papacy (along with other things such as the Declaration of the Clergy of France) in order to secure more power for himself in France.

Freedom of expression is all about the political climate you find yourself in, and the successful disruptor is he who takes this into account when planning his campaign.

Wow. I don't know what to make of this. Are you saying people should keep their heads down? That there's nothing wrong with oppression? Galileo's boldness probably accelerated the scientific revolution by decades if not more. The world owes him a giant favor.

I'm saying to be pragmatic, because it will get you a lot farther than would outright defiance. Too many idealists go down in flames because they're simply unwilling to see the broader picture containing people, power, and the relationships that drive them.

There is a time and place for defiance. Get it wrong, and your cause can be set back years, decades, perhaps even centuries.

Galileo's defiance and life under house arrest would have been but a footnote in history had king Louis not extended his invitation to Cassini, and that would not have happened had Louis not considered himself strong enough to defy Rome, and he would not have even cared to defy Rome had Rome not held such a stranglehold on the appointment of priests in Europe. So even though Galileo was foolhardy and naive, it turned out alright due to political circumstances that he never even considered. It was a massive risk to the future of science that Galileo didn't even consider, but had he taken a more temperate approach and bided his time for a better opportunity, none of this would even have been necessary. There are many more cases of idealists who were not so lucky.

This is not about how the world "ought to be", but rather the way things are (and, in fact, always have been).

contrarily to what I'm reading here, I think that it is a good idea that the trial goes on. The point is not that a best estimate was wrong, but rather that the conclusions could have been steered by political pressures, which is actually not unlikely, considered the history of man-made or man-facilitated disasters in Italy (e.g. the Vajont dam).

I believe that the purely scientific advisors will be cleared at the end, but bringing everyone to trial is inevitable as the firt step. ("inevitable" in standard italian judiciary practice, that is).

What's next, jailing doctors who fail to predict the common cold?

I bet there won't be very many seismological press conferences in the near future.

No. Jail the CDC for failing to predict which flu strain will become a pandemic. :P

Sure doctors in the US get sued for malpractice all the time. If they were advising a large population (e.g., they were on TV) and gave bad advice which led to many people's deaths, you can darn well bet there'd be consequences.

In this case, it seems like like the difference between

  <scientist> There is a low probability of a
  major quake

  <politician> Scientists assure me that you
  are all completely safe
That and a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics by the general population (e.g. low probability == no going to happen).

So they should be hanging the politician...

Yes, and leave the scientists out.

Suing implies civil charges. We are talking about criminal charges here (i.e. the threat of jail time).

In that case, I can't wait for Kevin Trudeau's trial.

Reason #347 the Italian justice system should be used as a Model of what NOT to do...

playing devil's advocate here (from what i've read, i don't think this is a good idea at all), my limited understanding (i develop software related to seismic detection, but was not educated as a geophysicist) is that we really have no clue about earthquake prediction. so the "best" scientific advice may well have been "we don't know"; perhaps they were guilty of being too confident?

It looks like they gave some politician a detailed, comprehensive explanation that boiled down to "We don't know, but if we really had to give a definite answer we'd guess that a major earthquake is comparatively unlikely, because...". That politician turned around and told the public "Definitely no earthquake, everything is completely safe, go back to work." It's like a game of telephone where everybody in the middle is drunk or stupid and one side is getting sued for what came out the other end.

There's a nice quote from a geophysicist in the other Nature article on this:

Scientists are often asked the wrong question, which is 'when will the next earthquake hit?' The right question is 'how do we make sure it won't kill so many people when it hits?'

This is just the latest demonstration of the precautionary principle[1] at work. People in authority act as if the worst-case scenario will happen (regardless of the actual risk of that) because it's self-preservative.

We're so focused on always looking for a scapegoat when something goes wrong that the only way to pre-empt potential persecution (either by the mob or the press or the justice system or whoever) is to always cover your ass, regardless of what the actual risk analysis tells you. Warning against events like terrorist attacks and earthquakes is a win/win: if they do occur, you're the heroic prophet who saw it all coming. If they don't, no one will call you out on needlessly spending large amounts of money on their prevention.

There is quite a bit of precedent for this kind of reasoning. For examples, see Blair's role in the invasion of Iraq (45 minutes, remember?) and the United States' Homeland Security Advisory System (never lower than "Elevated"). And did anyone get nailed to the metaphorical cross for the enormous sums of money flushed down the toilet to protect against Y2K?

To dismiss this as a uniquely Italian issue, as many of my fellow HN'ers seem to be doing, is a failure to see the wider picture. Don't kid yourself, this happens everywhere.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle

I am not sure what to think of it but when De Bernardinis said “the scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable”, it occurs to me that "there is no danger" is incorrect. And dangerous. A more precise statement would have been "there is danger, but we have no way to know the probabilities of an earthquake". Am I right or missing something here?

Be wary in drawing clear distinctions between scientists and bureaucrats, because figures such as presidents or directors of scientific institutions, here in Italy, are usually more bureaucrats or politicians than scientists, and their actions or statements might not be motivated by science alone.

So while it might be fun to imagine us italians running with our pitchforks after a bunch of lab-rats to burn them at the stake for their failure at quake-prediction, what's really happening is that a prosecutor has doubts about the “quality” of work of some people paid lotsa public money to be part of a committee whose task was to assess seismic risks for that area at that time. Was the risk assessed correctly or not?

And if not, why?

Note how (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100622/full/465992a.html) nobody is willing to take responsibility for the reassuring statements that in the end convinced the otherwise alarmed population to stay at home. The scientists say that the meeting was too short to consider all the data, while the civil protection agency responds to them that they should have not waited six months to object to that.

An aside: back in 2009, before and after the quake, there was one guy claiming to be able to foresee when and where earthquakes would strike with a certain precision by measuring radon emissions. Except the quake he foresaw a week earlier nearby L'Aquila never happened, and after the big one caused 300 deaths, he went on record saying to have foreseen it by something like 6 to 24 hours, depending on which interview. He became somewhat popular at the time, and probably still is, to the point that the public opinion might be left with the notion that quakes can indeed be foreseen - this trial might not be that bad thing for science after all.

The possibility of going to jail for interpreting data will certainly deter scientist from interpreting data.

Which is great, because the average person can just look at the seismic data each morning and decide for themselves. Right after they sift through the weather data to see if any tornados might have swung by while they were sleeping.

like in the good old times when court astrologist would be rewarded until the day of disaster when he would be beheaded. It was just a professional risk of being an astrologist, and i don't see any difference between an astrologist and seismologist making any definitive predictions - both ride the chance presenting it as scientific result and harvest benefits until the chance is in their favor.

Is that lawsuit against Google over that one Youtube video still going on there?

there is no danger

Was that a misquote, or what the seismologists actually said? Their position is a little more shaky (ha, ha) if they said there is NO danger

Here's a more complete article:


It seems like the committee contained 6 geophysicists who reported to a civil defense bureaucrat (who has a PhD in Fluid Mechanics - think Civil Engineering). The geophysicists said the standard things ("we can't rule it out").

Then these deliberations were summarized by the bureaucrat for the press conference, which the geophysicists did not attend, as (presumably in Italian ;-):

"The scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable."

And there's your trouble spot.

It is wrong to misrepresent appropriately-hedged claims where life and limb are at stake. It should be a scandal.

And incidentally, this is why it's really hard to be the technical person who stands in front of the press conference. Doing it well is a gift.

The old world seems to be eager to dig themselves into a luddite grave. They want to live in a world with a "safe" internet and predictable, politically malleable science. We've been down such roads before, they're not good roads (the result is oppression; intolerance; corruption; stagnation of society, political thought, science, technology, and commerce).

Not sure that the new world is any better. All those specified areas have direct new world examples. Can everyone be going backwards? We are where I am...

Old news (May 2010), but worth revisiting.

?? The article is dated May 2011.


The charges were originally filed over a year ago. The news now is that, after procedural delays, the judge succumbed to idiocy and actually let them go to court.

Then it's not old news, is it?

26 May - Scientists fail to predict earthquake, internet rallies to defend scientists. 21 May - Harold Camping fails in rapture prediction. Internet piles in on Camping as a fraud.

Just saying ;)

Scientists make best prediction they can based on three hundred years of observation, experimentation, and careful, systematic application of the scientific method; politician makes idiotic statement based on fundamental misunderstanding of scientists' report; scientists end up in court for politician's idiocy; internet rallies, along with every other person with a brain. Harold Camping makes prediction based on no observation, no experimentation, no method, only madness; Camping is fractally wrong, refuses to admit that he made a mistake; internet attacks, along with every other person with an unimpaired brain.

I suspect you're trollan, but I figure there's no such thing as "too safe".

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact